All through my growing years living in a Punjabi-dominated "refugee" colony in central Delhi, my brother and I had difficulty establishing our regional identity. Neighbourhood kids and even their mothers doubted if we were Bengalis because of our dark complexion, our father's thick-rimmed glasses and his habit of reading six newspapers in the morning.
It didn't matter that we were vegetarians, had Singh as last name or our mother wore salwar-kameez and spoke fluent Punjabi because her family had been living in Delhi for countless generations. But we just fitted better in a non-Punjabi stereotype.
Till not so long ago, for most residents in neighbourhoods that came up in the 1950s to resettle families displaced by Partition, home meant their ancestral village in West Punjab, Sindh or Northwest Frontier Province. It was difficult to place anyone from outside that universe. Anyone from south of the Vindhyas was a Madarsi and from the east of Delhi, a Bihari or a Bengali.
Of course, the sense of being a Delhiite is stronger among the successive generations. The 36 resettlement colonies, most named after freedom fighters, have changed in character with private builder flats coming up. The new professional migrants have found their place among the families resettled after Partition.
My parents now have Goans, Andhras and Marwaris for neighbours. The new migrants also want a permanent stake in the community. The Ganesh Chaturthi organised every year by the Gowd Saraswath Samaj from Karnataka is now as popular as the local Ramlila and the Diwali mela.
A large chunk of the professional migrants have moved to the newer neighbourhoods in Delhi and the National Capital Region where assimilation is happening more naturally and rapidly. For example, when I moved to the eastern extension of Delhi five years ago, Durga Puja was a small affair in my gated community with some Bengali, Assamese and Oriya families getting together and putting up a pandal.
This time, though, the resident welfare association has ensured that there is something for every community. The Durga Puja Samiti banner stays but the festivity starts with Mata ki Chowki, popular among north Indians, particularly Punjabis, and is followed by Dandiya, made famous by Gujaratis. Of course, there are the usual Bengali fare of pushpanjali, sindur daan and visarjan. This puja is drawing a good crowd, donations have got bigger and so have the sponsorships.
Delhi first tasted regional cuisine at Dilli Haat. But in the last few years, take-away services have mushroomed everywhere. In my part of the town, Bengali, Maharastrian, Oriya and Bihari restaurants are as popular as the butter chicken-paneer tikka outlets. The Punjabi dhabas in my parents' neighbourhood are now run by Biharis. In the areas surrounding the north campus of Delhi University, a predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood, it is now easier to get food from the Northeast than the staple dal-roti, thanks to the presence of students from the region.
The process of cosmopolitanisation started in Delhi with the migrant influx from Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka that started with the British shifting base from Calcutta in 1911. Punjabis followed from what is now Pakistan. Bengalis populated CR Park in the 1970s and migrants from UP and Bihar joined in soon.
With the Punjabis predominant in west and north parts of Delhi, for long the other communities restricted themselves to specific pockets. But assimilation in all quarters has been melting these barriers. Thankfully, one doesn't need to visit Hauz Khas village to feel cosmopolitan anymore. A phone call to a neighbourhood eatery or a walk down to the seasonal carnival is all we need.